University Launching Initiative to Study and Improve the Health of San Antonians

University Launching Initiative to Study and Improve the Health of San Antonians

Texas A&M-San Antonio is making great strides on an innovative new program designed to improve health care and expand the understanding of diseases impacting Texans’ quality of life.   

After putting together a high-performing research team, including Drs. Ravindranath Duggirala, Donna M. Lehman, Srinivas Mummidi, and Rector Arya, the University recently launched the Public Health Genetics and Genomics Laboratory. The program will identify and study the genetic factors influencing complex diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, gallbladder disease, metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease.  

Such health problems are alarmingly prevalent in Texas, where approximately 34% of adults are obese, according to recent data from County Health Rankings & Roadmaps. The stats are equally troubling in Bexar County, where 36% of adults are overweight or obese, compared to 32% in the U.S. 

Moreover, heart disease is the leading cause of death in Bexar County, with 177.6 deaths per 100,000 in 2020 compared to 168.2 per 100,000 for the country, according to the  San Antonio Metropolitan Health District. And Bexar County’s overall diabetes hospitalization rate (254.9 per 100,000) is consistently higher than that of Texas overall, with several ZIP codes on San Antonio’s south side as high as 385 per 100,000. 

“The goal of this initiative is to make A&M-San Antonio the regional leader in genetic epidemiology and genomics.”

Dr. Vijay Golla, vice provost for research and health sciences

Golla, who oversees the Public Health Genetics and Genomics Laboratory, said the initiative is also intended to engage students and boost the local healthcare workforce and educational system, helping promote positive and compassionate patient care in the process. 

“We want to produce graduates who are going to cater to the community’s needs and successfully address the region’s health challenges,” said Golla.  

The University received $1.9 million last year as part of FY 2023 Federal Appropriations Act to launch the health program.     

Congressman Tony Gonzales secured the funding from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). The money was used to purchase capital equipment to establish a world-class research center. Personnel will soon begin conducting experiments, ranging from data analysis to collecting and studying human biological samples.  

“We’re focusing on genetic markers of diseases and how they can impact multiple generations,” said Golla. “We’re looking to improve the prediction, detection, prevention and treatment of complex diseases and together create a healthier community.” 

The multidisciplinary research team is currently located off-campus at the San Antonio Technology Center. Ravindranath said they have clinical and laboratory space where they can conduct experiments, perform examinations, and collect various medical and health data from the recruited test subjects, including dietary patterns, physical activity and demographic information. 

Dr. Srinivas Mummidi (seated) and other Public Health Genetics and Genomics Laboratory team members.

“Our studies focus on Mexican American families and why they are more prone to diseases like diabetes and obesity,” said Ravindranath.  

As part of the various studies, Ravindranath said they’ve recruited multiple generations to help identify certain risk factors, like a diet lacking in fruit and vegetables, which is more prevalent in economically challenged neighborhoods and a common factor in poor health.   

“As we collect the data, we do intensive computer analyses to help determine factors like what are the correlates of certain diseases and how they move from one generation to the next,” said Ravindranath. “We can connect how a disease is linked to genetic and environmental factors. It’s critical work that tells us so much about the health of San Antonio families.”  

The Public Health Genetics and Genomics Laboratory research team will eventually move into the Public Health and Education Building. The $44.9 million project, which is scheduled to open on the A&M-San Antonio campus by spring 2026, is part of a multifaceted collaboration that brings together the University, Texas A&M University Health Science Center and University Health.  

The partnership, which was formalized last year, focuses on educational and research opportunities that impact Bexar County and South Texas. In addition to the University’s Public Health and Education Building, the collaboration includes University Health’s public health facility and hospital development, which will be located at the west entry to A&M-San Antonio’s campus. University Health in 2021 acquired 68 acres to develop a 256-bed hospital. And last year Bexar County appropriated $30 million for a public health division facility.  

Golla said the initial phase of the University’s Public Health Genetics and Genomics Laboratory is establishing a strong foundation that will help the region understand its health needs and meet the demand for critical healthcare professionals.  

“This group represents a very special cohort, with faculty and research staff,” said Golla. “We’re very fortunate to have them. The work they do is unique, and I look forward to this program really blossoming over the next few years.”